“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

This was the title of the November 18 sermon by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude for the service was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (Movements I and II) that was performed by Douglas Carlsen, trumpet (Minnesota Orchestra) and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Associate Pastor, Rev.  Alanna Simone Tyler, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “O Holy One, we gather today aware that we fall short of your hopes for us. We are a people divided. We do not trust one another. We forget we belong to the whole human family, not merely to our little circle. We do not accept the stranger as if it were you, O Christ. Forgive us, and make us one again, with you and with those from whom we are estranged.”

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

“Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

“So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’”

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’”

“When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

The Sermon:

“Few stories in Hebrew Scripture are as central to our Christian narrative, and are as reflective of what God is up to in Jesus, as the account of Naomi and Ruth.”

In many ways it’s a thoroughly modern story, a tale of love and survival, of refugees and immigrants, of loyalty and generosity, of family legacy and the quiet strength of women.” (Emphasis added.)

“Naomi, an Israelite, marries a man from Bethlehem. They flee famine in Israel and travel as refugees to the land of Moab to the east, beyond the river Jordan, where they settle as a family.”

“But after a time Naomi’s husband dies, and with no one to provide for her and being a refugee from a foreign land, she faces serious hardship. Fortunately, her sons have grown up. They marry women of Moab, Orpah and Ruth, and can now care for their mother.”

“We often view the story of Ruth as the tale of individuals and the decisions they make. But their lives, and this story, are lived in a much broader context. Naomi, from Israel, and Ruth, from Moab, represent two nations historically in conflict. Their people are enemies.” (Emphasis added.)

“To get a feel for the unsettling power of this narrative, imagine it set in the modern Middle East. If we replace Moab with Palestinian Gaza, and Bethlehem with Israeli Tel Aviv, we begin to get a sense of the larger, treacherous, complicated implications of this story.” (Emphasis added.)

“For a time all is well for Naomi in her new life in Moab, but then tragedy strikes again. Both sons die, leaving her vulnerable once more. The only hope for Naomi is to return to Bethlehem where she has relatives on whom she might be able to depend. She learns the famine that caused them to leave in the first place is over, and she decides to go home.”

“When Naomi sets off for Bethlehem, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her, but Naomi stops them. She tells them to go home to their own people, where they have a chance of surviving, of marrying again and starting new families, and being among their own people. Orpah chooses to return home, but Ruth’s love and loyalty compel her to go with her mother-in-law, who tries again to dissuade her. I imagine them standing on the banks of the Jordan, the border between Moab and Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, Naomi urging her to return home one last time. But Ruth stands her ground.”

“’Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!’ she says to Naomi.”

  • Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.’ (Ruth 1:17-18)” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s a stunning soliloquy, with far-reaching consequences. With her words, Ruth reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions. She chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations. She sets self aside and declares her intention to use love as the measure by which she will live.” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth points to the dangers of exaggerated nationalism and the risks of restrictive boundaries within the human family. The story upends old rules about identity, and proposes new ways of thinking about relationships. It shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.” (Emphasis added.)

“After Ruth’s words, Naomi really has no choice, so the two of them set off together for Bethlehem, climbing up into the hills of Judah from the Jordan Valley. Once they get there, they have no means of sustaining themselves. In order to provide food for the two of them, Ruth goes to glean in the fields with other poor, hungry people, picking up leftovers after the harvest. She happens to do this, to glean, in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of her dead husband’s family.”

“Boaz sees her and is attracted to her, and asks about her and, eventually, with a little encouragement from Ruth, falls in love with her. They have a son named Obed, whose wife has a son named Jesse. Remember the prophetic prediction that ‘a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse?’ That shoot would be David, son of Jesse, great-grandson of Ruth – David, who would become king of Israel, and from whose line the Messiah would one day come, as the prophets of old had foretold.” (Emphasis added.)

“In other words, without the courage and strength of Naomi and the perseverance and love of Ruth, the story would end. There would have been no Obed, no Jesse, no David – and, eventually, no Jesus. The entire biblical story for Christians rests on this one foreign enemy woman, a young widow who leaves her own people, with great risk, goes with her mother-in-law, to support her, because it was the right and just thing to do. As the Shaker poem the choir sang earlier says, ‘Love will do the thing that’s right.’”

“’Where you go I will go, ‘Ruth says. ‘Where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’”

The prophet Micah asks, ‘What does the Lord require of us’ Ruth, a foreigner not under the law of the Hebrews, instinctively knows the answer: ‘To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.’” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth is a parable for our time. It may not be Moab and Israel, but in America today we live as if we were enemies of one another. There’s no longer a common understanding of what unites us as a people. We think the worst of those with whom we disagree. Everything has a zero-sum quality to it. Either you’re with me or you’re against me.” (Emphases added.)

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

“American individualism has always been in creative and generative tension with the call to live as one community. These days, however, that tension has largely been displaced by rampant sectarianism. Very few now try even to talk across the divide anymore. Rigid partisanship precludes the possibility of building a shared purpose as a people. We cannot see beyond our own firm boundaries.”

“Presidential historian Michael Beschloss spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum last Tuesday. More than 1700 people were here. The sanctuary and Westminster Hall were filled to overflowing.” [2]

“We were surprised by the crowd. Why did so many people come? The midterm elections were over and the relentless campaigning was behind us , and I think people wanted to take a longer view of where things stand in America. We had just marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending the First World War. And our national Day of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, always a time to pause and reflect on the road we as a people have trod, and on the journey ahead. People came that day to find hope for the future of our nation.”

“The questions asked of Beschloss at the Town Hall Forum focused less on any particular president, current or historic, and more on the present contentiousness in our land. People wrote question expressing serious anxiety about the health of our democracy. They wanted to hear from a professional historian whether things are as bad as they seem. They are, in his view.“

“Beschloss is deeply concerned about the nation and its future. In his study of history, he said, he knew of few times in our country’s life as fraught with division and discord, and the potential for worse, as ours. Even as he expressed hope about the enduring strength of American democracy, he warned about the risk of conflict escalating into violence.”

“This is not only a Republican-Democrat problem, or a conservative-progressive matter. It’s not even solely a political problem, nor merely a lack of civility. It’s something far more than that.”

“It’s the same question Ruth faced, a question of identity and belonging: whose people will be my people? Our people?”

“It shows up in the rural-urban divide. It can be seen in the widening gulf between those with a high level of economic comfort and those who have been left behind – and in the policies aimed at keeping things like that. We see it in unresolved racial disparities among us. It’s there in the backlash against immigrants. There’s a growing education gap and a perception of elitism among us.”

“We’re all caught up in it. We’re all caught up in the cultural dividing lines that cut across the nation. And naturally we think the “other side” is at fault; but none of us is innocent.”

“Beschloss said that when American presidents have found themselves leading in a time of war they always become more religious. He described Lincoln coming to Washington as an agnostic, and maybe even an atheist,, but as he sent men off to fight and die on the battlefield he turned to the Bible and to prayer for wisdom and strength and succor. We can hear it in his speeches; he quoted scripture all the time. He needed something beyond his own resources to bear the terrible burden and to help resolve the national crisis.”

“We need something, as well, beyond our own limited resources. What we’re facing, I think, can be described as a spiritual problem. We’re too mired in mundane, daily outrage to see things from a higher point of view.” (Emphasis added.)

“In contrast, Ruth refuses to let the prevailing perception of reality – that Moab and Israel are enemies – define her own point of view. She chooses to live according to a different reality. She seeks a deeper, broader, more generous perspective on the human family. She lifts her vision above the discord and looks beyond it. She wants to see things more as God intends them to be, not as the world sees them.”

“We’re in a moment where our nation lacks that kind of moral vision, a vision that looks beyond the immediacies of our divided house, a vision summoning us to conceive anew the possibilities the American experiment was meant to offer. We cannot keep living like this; there’s simply too much at stake not to try to reclaim the values at the heart of our democracy – values never perfectly implemented, but that have served as aspirational measures of our life together.”

This is a Naomi and Ruth moment, and the question facing us is: whose people will be our people?” (Emphasis added.)

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies God’s response to that question.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the coming season we will we speak of this one who is born in Bethlehem, the descendant of David. We will speak of him as Emmanuel, God with us.”

Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally, even at the risk of losing his own life.” (Emphasis added.)

In Jesus, and in Ruth, we have the blueprint for human community: a generosity of spirit that starts by saying, “Your people will be our people.” (Emphasis added.)

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon provided historical and contemporary contexts that made the story of Ruth and Naomi more powerful.

Naomi and Ruth were from countries, Israel and Moab respectively, that were enemies. Yet Ruth “reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions.” She “chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations” and thereby “shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.”

“Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally.”

It is easiest for nearly everyone to first experience love in a family and define yourself as a member of that family. Then as we grow up we enlarge the family group to include friends and neighbors, eventually people from a geographical area and then a nation. All of these groups are logical and hopefully enriching.

The challenge then is to understand and treasure all human beings who are outside these groups. We are offered opportunities to do so by reading about people in other cultures and lands, by seeking to engage with nearby neighbors with different cultures and traditions, by welcoming newcomers of all faiths and traditions to our cities and towns and by traveling to other lands.

I have been blessed in this quest by a superb education; by living and studying for two years in the United Kingdom; by traveling to many other countries in Europe, North America and Latin America and a few countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa; by being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, Somalis, Colombians and men from Afghanistan and Burma; by learning and teaching international human rights law; by researching and writing blog posts about Cuba, Cameroon and other countries and issues; and by getting to know their peoples and by getting to know people in Minnesota from many other countries.

Especially meaningful for me has been involvement in Westminster’s Global Partnerships in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine and learning more about these countries’ histories, traditions and problems and establishing friendships with individuals in these countries. For example, this past May, individuals from these three counties visited Westminster in Minneapolis and we all shared our joys and challenges. Especially enriching were three worship services focused on each of our partnerships.

For example, our May 20, 2018, service on Pentecost Sunday featured our Palestinian brothers and sisters from our partner congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.[3]

We had Palestinian music from the Georges Lammam Ensemble (San Francisco, California). Rev. Munther Isaac, the Senior Pastor of our partner congregation, provided the Pastoral Prayer and led the unison Lord’s Prayer. My new friend, Adel Nasser from Bethlehem, chanted the Twenty-third Psalm in Arabic.

Then Rev. Mitri Raheb, the President of Dar-Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, had an illuminating conversational sermon with Rev. Hart-Andersen that was centered on the Biblical text (Acts 2: 1-12). This passage talks about a gathering in Jerusalem of  people “from every nation under heaven,” each speaking “in the native language of each” and yet hearing, “each of us, in our own native language” and thus understanding one another. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:

  • Hart-Andersen said the text emphasized that all of these people were in one place together, affirming the vast display of God’s creative goodness in the human family when no one has to surrender his or her own identity and thereby affirms the identity of every human being.
  • This is what God wants in the human family, Hart-Andersen continued. Make space for people who are different. The miracle of Pentecost is the existence of bridges over these differences and the destruction of walls that we tend to build around our own little groups.
  • Hart-Andersen also pointed out that Minnesota today is like that earlier gathering at Pentecost with over 100 different language groups in the State.
  • Raheb agreed, saying that Palestine is also very diverse and God wants diversity in the human family. As a result, there is a need to build bridges between different groups, and the Covenant Agreement between Westminster and Christmas Lutheran Church expressly calls for building bridges between the U.S. and Palestine. He also treasures the gathering this month of Cubans and Cameroonians with the Palestinians and Americans because it helped to build bridges among all four of these groups. We were experiencing Pentecost in Minneapolis.
  • Raheb also mentioned that the original Pentecost featured the miracle of understanding among the people speaking different languages. The Holy Spirit provided the software enabling this understanding.
  • Hart-Andersen said the diversity of the human family compels us to build bridges. The mission of the church is to resist walls that keep us apart.
  • Raheb emphasized that Acts 2:1-12 is a foundational text for Arabic Christianity as it mentions Arabs as being present on Pentecost.
  • He also contrasted Pentecost with the Genesis account (Chapter 11) of “the whole earth [having] one language and the same words” and the resulting arrogance to attempt to build a tower to the heavens. God responded by confusing their language” so that they would not understand one another and stop building the tower of Babel. This is emblematic of empires throughout history that have attempted to impose one language on all parts of the empire.

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

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[1]  The text of the sermon is available on the church’s website.

[2] See Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum, dwkcomentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2018).

[3] The bulletin and an audio recording for this May 20 service are available on the Westminster website.

 

“What Is a Reformed View of Politics?”

This is the title of the sermon by Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, on Reformation Sunday, October 28.[1] Below are photographs of Rev. Hart-Andersen and the Westminster Sanctuary.

 

 

 

As noted in other posts, every Westminster worship service is divided into the following three sections: Preparing for the Word, Listening for the Word and Responding to the Word. Here are some of the elements of the first two sections of this service.

Preparing for the Word

The service was opened by the stirring Prelude: “Marche en Rondeu” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and “Trumpet Tune in D Major” by David N. Johnson that were played by Douglas Carlsen (trumpet, Minnesota Orchestra), Jeffrey Gram, timpani; and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Rev. David Shinn, Associate Pastor, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “Eternal God, we confess we keep you at a distance to pursue our own way. We forget your mercy is waiting for us as we close our hearts to you. Whisper the offer of your grace once more to us, and wash away all the things we have done and left undone. Make a new way for us to live in humility, showing love to others and to you. May we be forgiven as we confess our shortcomings, and renewed by your faithfulness, courageous in our pursuit of justice and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son.”

Listening for the Word

The Scripture Readings

Genesis 17: 1-8 (NRSV):

  • “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty;  walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’”

Matthew 1: 1-6a, 17 (NRSV):

  • “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah,the son of David, the son of Abraham.
  • Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
  • And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,
  • So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.”

The Sermon[2]

“Scripture is concerned with history, and we should be, as well.  If we are not, as George Santayana famously observed, we ‘are condemned to repeat it.”

“That warning came to mind yesterday as we heard about the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitism has spiked in America; the number of hateful incidents directed at Jews rose last year by 57%. Something is going wrong in our midst.”

“Political discourse hasn’t helped. When Neo-Nazis march and rally and are not clearly and resoundingly denounced by our leaders, that sends signals to those with hate in their hearts. If we forget the long history of bigotry and violence against Jews, we will repeat it.”

“If we forget the long history of injustice and violence against indigenous people in this land, we will repeat it.”

“If we forget the long history of the enslavement of African people in America and violence directed against them and their descendants, we will repeat it. If we forget the long history of mistreatment and violence against women and immigrants and people of differing sexual orientation and identity we will repeat it. “

“Our faith is rooted in history. Scripture goes out of its way to show the connections from one generation to another, to weave the threads of memory and experience, of joy and lament, through the long years of the human story. Scripture wants us not to forget.”

“When the Bible includes lists of the generations, as we heard in Matthew’s gospel, that precede us, it does so to remind us that we do not exist in a vacuum. We are tethered to a people and to values and to narratives of meaning. We are not alone. We are not the first to struggle with what it means to confront the baser impulses of the human heart, or to live in fractured community, or to seek out a God who can sometimes seem distant.”

“The gospel of Matthew opens with a recitation of the generations that stretch from Abraham through David. Fourteen generations. Then another fourteen up to the time of Babylonian exile. Then fourteen more to the birth of the Messiah.”

“Matthew doesn’t mention women in the genealogy, except when it’s necessary to bridge a gap from one generation to another. A man who cannot produce an heir with the correct lineage has to rely on an outsider woman. Then Matthew includes them, otherwise the entire biblical story would come to an abrupt end. It’s the patriarchy’s grudging way of acknowledging that women matter in the story.”

“What would it look like to extend the telling of the generations, from Jesus on…Paul, Lydia, Origen, Perpetua and Felicity, Monica, the desert mothers and fathers, St. Columba…up to the time of the Great Schism of Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054.”

“Then Hildegard of Bingen, Peter Waldo, Julian of Norwich, Jan Hus, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila…and on to the time of the Protestant Reformation. Then Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, our Presbyterian ancestor, Beza, Knox. Four of them are enshrined in our windows, once again suggesting there were no women involved. There were. We should have four other windows with Marie Dentiere, Marguerite de Navarre, Argula von Grumbach, and Olympia Morata – ancestors from that era and leaders in the faith.”

“The generations continue with Bartolomé de las Casas, John Winthrop, John Wesley, Chief Joseph, Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Sitting Bull, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gene Robinson. Who would you put into that lineage?”

“We’re all linked by the flow of history, passing along the wisdom of the ages, the stories of pain and suffering, the moments of redemption. We’re not making up our faith as we go along. We’ve received it and are carrying it forward, to the generations that follow. We are stewards in our time of the hope at the heart of our faith.”

“It’s Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate the stream of Christian history in which we stand as Protestants. We open with John Calvin’s hymn and will close with Martin Luther’s. It’s also nine days before an election that has highlighted and heightened tensions among us. We’re anxious in America, and afraid. The divisive rancor is endless and exhausting. Our politics are tearing us apart.

“ In the midst of the chaos in which we find ourselves, our faith, our Protestant, reformed faith, can help us navigate the politics of these times in which we live.”

“”Do Politics Belong in Church?’  the cover of a recent issue of a Christian journal asks. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who conspired against Hitler, has a response. ‘As much as the Christian would like to remain distant from political struggle,’ Bonhoeffer says, ‘Nonetheless, even here the commandment of love urges the Christian to stand up for their neighbor.’ (Sojourners, p. 19, Feb 2018)”

“If we want religion that doesn’t engage in politics – not partisan politics, but the kind of politics that involves ‘standing up for our neighbors’ on the receiving end of hatred and poverty, prejudice and violence – if that’s what we want to avoid, then we had better find another savior.”

“What’s a reformed, or Presbyterian, view of politics? The response to that question begins with the notion of covenant, which we learned from the Jews. Covenant refers to the bond between God and humanity. God promises never to abandon humankind; that bond becomes the model for all human relationships, including between two people, or in a family, or in the community, or in the relationship between rulers and people, between government and citizens. Politics, in the Presbyterian understanding, is based on God’s call to life in covenantal community.” (Emphasis added.)

“Covenant goes back through our biblical ancestry to Abram. When God establishes a covenant between them, Abram becomes Abraham. He’s given a new name; that’s what happens when someone comes into covenant with God. That’s what was happening in the Tree of Life Synagogue yesterday. When the shooting started they were in the midst of the naming ritual for a new baby, marking the start of that child’s covenantal life with God.”

“For Abraham the new name as he comes into covenant with God is also a sign that he will be the father of a long line of descendants – the very line that stretches through the Hebrew people to the Messiah, and then on through the early church, and to Roman Catholicism, and to the Reformation and into our time.”

“Covenant theology of the Presbyterians played a key role in the development of democracy in America. H. Richard Niebuhr writes that for Presbyterians,

  • ‘The world has this fundamental moral structure of a covenant society and that what is possible and required in the political realm is the affirmation and reaffirmation of humanity’s responsibility as a promise-maker, promise-keeper, a covenanter in universal community.’ (Quoted in “The Concept of Covenant in 16th and 17th Century Continental and British Reformed Theology” in Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition, Donald K. McKim, ed. [Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1992], p. 95)

Three dimensions of covenant have particular relevance for American democracy today.” (Emphasis added.)

“First, covenant life is inclusive. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek,’ the Apostle Paul writes,

  • ‘There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the covenant.’(Galatians 3:28-29)” (Emphasis added.)

“America was established with that covenant principle of inclusivity enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, when it states ‘that all men’ – all human beings we would say today – ‘are created equal (and) endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.’ All are included because all have the same rights and are equal before the law.”

“Democracy depends on inclusivity. That principle is under assault today. Some appear to be created more equal than others. The growing gap between those with power and resources and those without such privilege runs counter to the biblical admonition to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Racism destroys the promise of community. Differing treatment by law enforcement and the criminal justice system betrays the assurance of equal rights. The true measure of the success of a society is not how well those at the top are doing, but how well the most vulnerable are faring.”

“Covenantal politics is inclusive.” (Emphasis added.)

Second, covenant life affirms the full humanity of every person. In the biblical account of creation the earthling is made in the image of God. That assertion means that every human being is of the same value and has something to contribute. That fundamental claim undergirds democracy – that all have equal access to participation in the political process and equal access to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”’ (Emphasis added.)

“When Sojourner Truth in 1851 stood up for her full humanity [and said[:

  • ‘And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?’ Delivered 1851; Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio) “

“Democracy depends on seeing the worth of every person. That principle is under assault today. The rise of hate crimes against Jews and Muslims eats away at their full humanity. Immigrants and refugees are treated as unworthy and their full humanity is implicitly questioned. More than three million people who have served their sentences cannot vote because of a felony on their record and their full humanity is not restored to them. This week the government proposed new rules that would deny the full humanity, even the existence, of more than one million people who identify as transgender.”

Covenantal politics affirms the full humanity of every person.” (Emphasis added.)

“Finally, covenant life requires truth-telling. In John’s gospel Jesus says, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’” (Emphasis added.)

“The Declaration of Independence speaks of ‘truths’ that are ‘self-evident.’ Democracy requires a shared understanding of the truth. Without it there is no trust and the democratic system cannot function without trust.”

“In 1788, Presbyterians in New York and Philadelphia, fresh from helping write the U.S. Constitution, sat down and wrote a set of Principles of Church Order. Among them was this phrase: ‘Truth is in order to goodness,’ meaning truth-telling leads to good behavior.“

“They went on to say, ‘No opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level…We are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty.’ (F-3.0104 in PCUSA Book of Order)”

“Democracy depends on telling the truth, especially by those in power. That principle is under assault today. Conspiracy theories displace reality, facts become whatever is convenient in the moment, and lies masquerade as truth. When the truth goes missing, people suffer, and trust soon dissipates – and to live in covenant with one another trust is needed.”

Covenantal politics requires truth-telling,” (Emphasis added.)

“We are at a pivotal moment in our nation. Our democracy is fraying. Fear abounds. Violence simmers all around us and occasionally breaks through the surface. Trust has been depleted. Rhetoric works against the values and principles on which our democracy depends.”

“But we are a people rooted in history. We remember other times when the nation was threatened from within. And we overcame. ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all,’ ‘President Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address even as the Civil War continued to rage,

  • ‘Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…and…do all which may achieve…a just and lasting peace among ourselves.’”

“Those words express a politics of biblical covenant, where we are bound together and committed to the welfare of one another. If the nation could find its way back from the brink in that perilous and violent time, surely we can work our way out of the current predicament in which we find ourselves.”

“Democracy is a covenantal form of politics, and for it to be healthy requires participation. We need to do our part; we are responsible for one another. Voting is not merely a right; it’s the duty and responsibility of citizens in a democratic nation. Peaceful political engagement expresses and embodies and brings to life the promise of democracy.”

“Let us not forget that we are people of faith, rooted in history, in covenant with God and with one another, carrying on the hope of generations before us, even as we stand ready to hand that hope on to those who follow us.”

“In the end, we can trust that God’s grace and mercy, God’s justice, and God’s love will prevail, and we shall overcome.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

I usually ignore the biblical references to generations and descendents. They seem so boring and useless. This sermon, however, let me see that the previous generations of figures in the Bible plus my own ancestors remind me that I am not alone. As the sermon says, such references “remind us that we do not exist in a vacuum. We are “tethered to a people and to values and to narratives of memory.”

We are “stewards in our time of the hope at the heart of our faith.” This is another passage of the sermon that made an impact on me. I had not thought of being a steward for the short time of my life of a belief that was passed on to me so that the belief may be carried forward in time after I am gone.

I also never had thought of being a member of a covenantal community in the U.S. involving everyone who is here right now. Yet I certainly have believed that life in the U.S. is or should be inclusive recognizing the full humanity of everyone.

This also means that democracy “ is a covenantal form of politics” requiring my participation.

Finally I am reminded that retrieving and studying the Scriptures and the sermon and then writing about them provide deeper and more enriching insights. I urge others to do the same.

==================================

[1]  The bulletin for the service is online.

[2] Sermon, What Is a Reformed View of Politics? (Oct. 28, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

 

[3] The opening hymn that sometimes is attributed to John Calvin was “”Greet Thee, Who My sure Redeemer Art.” https://hymnary.org/hymn/GG2013/624

 

The closing hym, “Sing Praise to God Who reigns Above” is not attributed to Luther. https://hymnary.org/hymn/GG2013/645

 

“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

This beloved hymn was sung as an anthem by the choir at the July 28th worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] Listening to it was enriching although joining in congregational singing of the hymn would have been even more meaningful.

At least for me, however, there is not enough time while listening to an anthem or singing a hymn to ponder the true meaning and significance of its words. I recently have discovered that gaining a better and deeper understanding of a hymn or anthem requires subsequent meditation on the words, researching the hymn’s history and writing an essay recording the results of that meditation and research. In short, such a practice has become a spiritual discipline.[2]

The Lyrics

Here are the lyrics of the three verses of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing:”

1. Come, thou Fount of every blessing,

tune my heart to sing thy grace;

streams of mercy, never ceasing,

call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,

sung by flaming tongues above.

Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,

mount of thy redeeming love.

2. Here I raise mine Ebenezer;

hither by thy help I’m come;

and I hope, by thy good pleasure,

safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,

wandering from the fold of God;

he, to rescue me from danger,

interposed his precious blood.

3. O to grace how great a debtor

daily I’m constrained to be!

Let thy goodness, like a fetter,

bind my wandering heart to thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

prone to leave the God I love;

here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

seal it for thy courts above.

The hymn testifies to the amazing graces God provides to human beings. God bestows “streams of mercy, never ceasing.”  By God’s “help I’m come” thus far in my life, and with God’s “good pleasure, [ I hope] safely to arrive at home.”  “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger.” [3]

Confession of sin also is prominent in the hymn. The human being has a “wandering heart” that is “prone to wander” and “prone to leave the God I love.” The human can be and has been a “stranger, wandering from the fold of God.”

Therefore, the human being needs constraints, binders and fetters to combat this impulse to wander. The human needs God to “tune my heart to sing thy grace.”

God responds to this need with “goodness.”  The human in turn responds with “songs of loudest praise.”  “Praise the . . . mount of thy redeeming love.” “Fount of every blessing.” The human then offers “my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.”

The hymn’s reference to raising “my Ebenezer” long baffled me. The answer is found in the following passages of First Samuel in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), which is believed to have been written in the seventh century BCE:

  • Israel was engaged in battles with the Philistines. While Israel’s troops were encamped near the village of Ebenezer, the Philistines routed Israel and seized the Arc of the Covenant in accordance with the ancient custom of taking the statue of the god of the defeated enemy as booty. (1 Samuel 4-5.)
  • Seven months later the Philistines returned the Arc of the Covenant to Israeli people in the town of Beth-shemesh who subsequently delivered it to the people of the town of Kiriath-jearim. (1 Samuel 6-7:1.)
  • Twenty years passed, and Samuel, a prophet and judge, told the people of Israel. “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods [and idols] . . . from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve Him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” (1 Samuel 7: 2-3.)
  • The people did as they were told, and Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at [the town of] Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord” for forgiveness for your sins and for deliverance from the Philistines. The Israeli people then gathered at Mizpah for this religious ceremony. (1 Samuel 7: 4-6.)
  • When the Philistines learned of this assembly, their troops advanced to attack the Israeli people at Mizpah. The Lord, however, “threw [the Philistines] into confusion; and they were routed before Israel.” (1 Samuel 7: 7-11.)
  • To commemorate this event, “Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and [the village of] Jeshanah, and named [the stone] Ebenezer [stone of help and the site of the prior victory of the Philistines]; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” (1 Samuel 7:12.) In other words, Samuel publicly dedicated this stone, according to another blogger, “as a monument to God’s help, God’s faithfulness, God’s eternal covenant. And as the people got on with their lives, the stone stood there, visible to all who passed that way, a reminder of judgment and repentance, mercy and restoration.”

Thus, “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come” is a metaphorical way of saying that I recognize that God has helped me reach this point in my life and that it is important to create an outward expression of this recognition and gratitude.

The Lyricist

Robert Robinson
Robert Robinson

The lyrics were written around 1757 by Robert Robinson, an Englishman then age 22 and a recent convert to Evangelical Methodism. In 1759 after a brief period at a Congregational Chapel, he joined Stone-Yard Baptist Chapel in Cambridge, England. There he remained for most of the rest of his life, first as Lecturer and then, from 1762 to at least 1788, as Pastor.

Although Robinson had argued against Unitarianism for many years, in 1788 he apparently converted to that faith although never doubting the full divinity of Jesus Christ. In 1790 he visited Joseph Priestly, a noted Unitarian in Birmingham, England [4] and preached several sermons at his chapels. There Robinson died and was buried in that city’s Dissenters’ Burial Ground.

The Composer, Publisher and Arranger

Nettleton
Asahel Nettleton
John Wyeth
John Wyeth

In the U.S., the hymn is usually set to an American folk tune known as Nettleton, composed by Asahel Nettleton (1783 –1844), an American theologian and pastor from Connecticut who was highly influential during the Second Great Awakening.

In 1813 the hymn and music were included in the Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second that was published by John Wyeth, a Philadelphia printer. This book and its predecessor, the Repository of Sacred Music, were highly successful, selling over 150,000 copies. In the preface to his work, Wyeth claimed three qualifications as a compiler of sacred music: years of attention to the charms of church music; acquaintance with the taste of eminent teachers; and the possession of more than a thousand pages of music to use.

Howard Don Small
Howard Don Small

The musical arrangement used at Westminster on July 28th was by Howard Don Small (1933-2007), who had been the Choirmaster and Organist at Minneapolis’ St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. When he retired from St. Mark’s in 1998, a choir member expressed appreciation for Small’s “qualities of professionalism, musicianship, and leadership;” gratitude . . .  for the opportunity to grow, learn, and deepen my spirituality; sadness – that [Small] will be leaving, but also; happiness – that [Small] will be able to be relieved of the extreme pressure of your role to do things at a manageable and enjoyable pace.”

Conclusion

Melanie Ohnstad
Melanie Ohnstad
Jere Lantz
Jere Lantz

 Merely recounting the involvement over 250 years of four men in the creation, publication and arrangement of this hymn (and anthem) and then the Westminster choir’s singing the hymn under the direction of Jere Lantz with the organ accompaniment by Westminster Minister of Music & the Arts/Organist, Melanie Ohnstad, brings to mind two Scriptural passages.

All of these individuals are members of the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1-2) who meld their different gifts into one body to produce something pleasing to God (Romans 12: 3-8). Including Samuel in this cloud of witnesses, as we should, expands the time period to over 2,700 years.

I must confess that the Howard Don Small arrangement that was sung by the choir made a significant, and, I think, unfortunate change in the lyrics. Instead of “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come,” they sang “Here I find my greatest pleasure; In the help I hope I’m come.” (I am not too sure about the latter part of this substitution.) This change undoubtedly was prompted by the arranger’s knowing that many people today do not understand the reference to “raising my Ebenezer.”

This wording change, however, obliterates Robinson’s meaning and also prevents people from researching and discovering that true meaning. A professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Gary A. Parrett, has been crusading against such changes to this hymn. His article in Christianity Today expressed the following reasons for this opposition, which I endorse:

  • “Robinson [undoubtedly] felt he had found just the right expression to say what needed to be said. His phrasing, in this case, was succinct, biblical, pointed, poignant, and poetic.”
  • The “revisions are, at best, inconsistent attempts to be culturally relevant. How can the revisers leave in words like hither and fetter, as they typically do, while Ebenezer is heartlessly expunged?”
  • The revisions ignore the Biblical foundation for Robinson’s words, as pointed out above. As Parrett says, the “single word [Ebenezer] ushers the worshiper into both the biblical episode and the greater narrative of God’s redemptive dealings with his people. It points us, also, to Robinson’s dramatic conversion three years before he penned the hymn, inviting us to reflect upon our own stories and to remember God’s faithful dealings with us. By removing the word from the hymn, we likely remove it from believers’ vocabularies and from our treasury of spiritual resources.”
  • “What we have in such revisions is the worst sort of accommodation, even contribution, to biblical illiteracy. Our faith is filled with names and terms that were unfamiliar to us when we joined the family—atonement, propitiation, Sabbath, Passover, Melchizedek. What are we to do with such terms? We teach! How difficult would it be to simply explain the reference to Ebenezer?”

[1]  The bulletin and a video and audio recording of this service are available online.

[3]  These words remind me of the third verse of another great hymn, Amazing Grace: “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; ‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.”

[4]  Priestly (1733 –1804) was an 18th-century English theologian, Dissenting clergyman, natural philosopher, chemist, educator, and political theorist. He usually is credited with the discovery of oxygen

Percussive Preludes at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church

Two unusual preludes opened the September 16, 2012, worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. Joining Westminster’s Organist and pianist, Melanie Ohnstad, for the preludes was percussionist Jeffrey Gram.

Concertino for Marimba

The first prelude was Movement II of Concertino for Marimba by Paul Creston, an Italian-American composer (1906-1985) whose works have a strong rhythmic element. This work originally was written for marimba and orchestra. Its second movement is marked “Calm.” After an introductory theme first presented by the piano (solo flute in the orchestral version), the main theme (in chordal structure) is played by the marimba with four mallets. The general mood of tranquility persists except for the middle part.

Jeffrey Gram says that “this movement is written in ABA form. The A section that begins and ends the movement has the marimba’s rolled melodic lines flowing over the piano’s subtle rhythmic pulse. The B section is a cadenza or an ornamental passage in a free rhythmic style, and it increases in tempo and crescendos to a climax.”

Praise

The second prelude was Praise for steel drum and organ by Carol Barnett. With the steel drum, I was expecting to hear Caribbean rhythms. Instead there was a continuation of the mood of tranquility with a true blending of the sounds of the two instruments.

The Barnett piece, according to Gram, “begins calmly enough to evoke tranquility, with the steel drum providing some rhythmic interest over the organ’s low notes, but the piece develops much more active and rhythmic themes throughout and builds to an exciting finish. The organ provides much of the driving force of the piece. I hear the steel drum almost as hand bells or chimes (an appropriate allusion for a performance in the church) with repetitive rhythms and punctuating melodic lines here and there. The work’s mixed meters and rhythmic patterns require the performer to be on his or her toes.”

Gram said that Praise is scored for organ and steel drum, vibraphone, or marimba, and he learned the percussion part on both marimba and steel drum and decided to play it on steel drum to add another instrumental voice to the preludes.

Another reason, he acknowledged, for using the steel drum is that “it was much easier for me to play accurately on that instrument. The part contains several lines of melody consisting of unison double-stops (two notes played simultaneously) where the two notes are up to a couple octaves apart from each other. On the steel drum, these notes are very near to each other all around the circular drum and thus are relatively simple to execute accurately. On the marimba, notes are laid out linearly like a piano such that notes a couple octaves apart are actually a few feet apart and the performer must reach in opposite directions to strike each note. In the grand scheme of marimba literature, this is a fairly common and not necessarily a difficult task for a performer. But for this part-time percussionist, it can be difficult to perform the part accurately with any measure of consistency. Plus, the steel drum is just plain fun to play and to play it along with organ is a truly unique and rewarding experience.”

The composer of Praise, Carol Barnett, is a charter member of the American Composers Forum and a graduate of the University of Minnesota, where she studied composition with Dominick Argento and Paul Fetler, piano with Bernard Weiser, and flute with Emil J. Niosi. Barnett now is a Studio Artist (Composition) at Minneapolis’ Augsburg College in addition to being a composer and performer. She enjoys the challenge of using instruments in unusual combinations, and certainly the organ with steel drum is such a combination.

The Musicians

Melanie Ohnstad

Melanie Ohnstad has served Westminster as organist since November 1995. She received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Minnesota. She also holds the Master of Music in Organ Performance degree from Arizona State University and the Bachelor of Music degree from St. Olaf College.

Jeffrey Gram

Jeffrey Gram is a performer and advocate of new music. His performance experience includes solo and ensemble work with several new music ensembles across the U.S., an appearance at the International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and premier performances of percussion works by Thomas DeLio, Roger Zahab, and Stuart Saunders Smith. He performs on a CD of new music.

Jeffrey earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in percussion performance from Northwestern University and the University of Akron and taught percussion at the University of Pittsburgh and Muskingum College.

Jeffrey has since earned a Juris Doctor degree and practiced law. He now is a Gift Planner with Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, a network of foundations, funds and organizations that share knowledge and services to have the greatest possible impact through charitable giving. He specializes in connecting individuals, families and businesses with giving opportunities that match their values and meet their personal goals.

Gram is a Westminster member.

Conclusion

Following these two preludes was the moving Processional Hymn, “O Holy One and Nameless,” that was discussed in a prior post. The sermon that day–“What Do Our Hearts Treasure?”–was also excerpted in another post. A video of the entire service is on the web.

Jazzy Music at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

 

Westminster Sanctuary

Westminster‘s September 2nd worship service opened with a jazzy set of three organ preludes entitled “Organ, Timbrel, and Dance,” played by Melanie Ohnstad, the church’s Organist and Director of Music and the Arts.

The three preludes were based on German chorales as reinterpreted in jazz idioms. As a lover of German organ music and American and Latin jazz, I was fascinated and moved by the three pieces:

  • “Swing Five” used the rhythms of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” for the chorale “Erhalt uns, Herr” (Lord, Keep Us Steadfast).
  •  “Bossa Nova,” the Brazilian rhythms for “Wunderbarer Konig” (Wonderful King).
  • “Afro-Cuban,” the rhythms and melody of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story for “In dir ist Freude” (In Thee Is Gladness).
Johannes Matthias Michel

The composer is Johannes Matthias Michel, who was born in 1962 and grew up at Lake Constance (Germany) and who studied piano, church music, and organ in Basel, Heidelberg, Frankfurt and Stuttgart. He has composed many pieces for organ, and his organ discography includes more than a dozen CD recordings. One is of these three preludes, and there is a YouTube video of Michel playing these preludes.

Michel teaches artistic and liturgical organ playing at the University for Church Music of the Protestant Regional Church in Baden (Hochschule fur Kirchenmusik Heidelberg). Affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the University is in the city of Heidelberg in the historical region of Baden on the east bank of the Rhine River. Baden is the western part of the Baden-Wurttemberg state of Germany.

Christuskirche, Mannheim

Since 1999 he also has been the director of music at Christuskirche in Mannheim, which also is located in Baden. This is a Protestant church in the Oststadt district of the city. The church’s building was built in the early 20th century in the Art Nouveau style with Neo-Baroque accents. It escaped major damage in World War II. At Mannheim Michel also conducts the Bachchoir Mannheim and the chamber choir Mannheim and teaches organ at the State Academy of Music (Staatlichen Hochschule für Musik) in Mannheim.

Melanie Ohnstad

Melanie Ohnstad has served Westminster as organist since November 1995. She received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Minnesota. She also holds the Master of Music in Organ Performance degree from Arizona State University and the Bachelor of Music degree from St. Olaf College.

A streaming video of the Westminster worship service is available on the web so you too can hear this amazing set.